Book Review: Global Weirdness, Climate Central

Alas, it is the time of year again where I must read a depressing environment book to remind myself of the true state of the earth. Not that I needed much in the way of reminders this year, because it has been 60 degrees for about half of the past month in New York City and apparently it snowed in parts of Southern California today. But I digress.

In my continual effort to become an autodidact of climate change, I bought “Global Weirdness / Climate Central,” a compendium of short entries on the various components of the climate that interact to make up the current state of the world. Since I am no science human, I need to spend a significant chunk of time reading climate books for laypeople to inundate my brain with the basic information so later I can go and read more science heavy books. This is also what I do with economics by listening to Marketplace every day and hoping that eventually the words and concepts seep into my brain via osmosis.

The modus operandi of Global Weirdness was “to lay out the current state of knowledge about climate change,” which it does in sixty digestible 3-5 page polemics, based on reports from scientists and journalists at Climate Central. Even reading each chapter heading would give you a small climate change primer – but the entries are generally so coherently explained that even those of us whose brains are least acclimated to science words (aka, myself) can easily grasp the concepts. It delves into deeper science when necessary, but I never felt like I was lost in the jargon or that I was missing out by not having significant prior knowledge.

As the writers explained many different manifestations of climate change – melting ice in the arctic, the proliferation of clouds, changes in vegetation, ocean acidification, they connected the specific effects of these disparate elements to the larger trends that will dictate the future changes to the planet.

One theme that emerges is that humans, plants, animals, and certainly the earth itself, could theoretically survive many permutations of the climate, but we have acclimated very particularly to the way we live now – what with building giant infrastructures and reproducing millions of spawn every year. In other words, we were at the optimal circumstances, we adapted to them, and it's not that it's impossible to change, but what with the billions of humans and the structures they inhabit it'll be quite a difficult task, and will probably involve a not-desirable amount of death and destruction. As the book puts it -

“It's one thing for a small band of people to pack up camp and move a couple hundred miles to a better location if the climate changes. It's a very different thing to try and move a city like Cairo or New York or Shanghai because the sea level is rising. It' svery different to relocate the farms of the Midwestern United States up to Canada – along with the highways and railroads and power lines that serve them – because it's become to hot and dry to grow grain.”

The book utilizes well thought out and, thankfully, simple metaphors to help us through the basics of what is happening to the earth - in one of the most often repeated examples, they describe the amount of excess CO2 in the atmosphere like a bathtub with a slow drain - in the past 200 years we've really let the faucet go to town in dumping out CO2 into the atmosphere, but the drain isn't getting any larger. So the natural processes that we've always relied on to keep the earth at a livable equilibrium can't keep up with the water (CO2) gushing out into the atmosphere (the bathtub.) If I feel comfortable paraphrasing a scientific analogy, I think it's safe to say that the authors did their job. 

The team of writers behind Global Weirdness manage to avoid the doomsday speak that is pervasive in much of the literature and print about climate change, despite the fact that most of the information they communicate is relatively doom-ish. This is a powerful choice, because it doesn't let the reader negate the information for being over apocalyptic, but still communicates the dire circumstances in ways that are difficult to deny. (Although deny them idiots will, as evidenced by how few people seem to believe that the world will be drastically altered within our lifetimes.)

The book serves as a useful primer on pretty much any topic within the realm of climate change that one could delve into, and because of that it doesn't dive particularly deep into any one area. That worked for me, because it gave enough information to help me choose which topics to do more research on, and the necessary information to not be lost in a more in depth work. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who gives a shit about the environment but doesn't know where to start with how to turn giving a shit into actual action and knowledge.